Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 11 Nov 2017

The Romantics by E.P. Thompson

Radical historian and activist, E.P. Thompson published a major new work about every ten years or so and was planning another on the literature and politics of the Romantic movement when it became obvious he wouldn’t live long enough to complete it. He died in 1993 but prior to his death and  along with his wife, Dorothy, he started to bring together essays and lecture notes that he would have used to help the writing of the projected book. The work he’d done on William Blake was published separately as Witness Against the Beast and much of the rest was collected into this volume.

The revolutionary spirit abroad in England at the end of the Eighteenth Century was, of course, something that fascinated Thompson and he saw that spirit as embodied in the likes of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Godwin and the much less well known John Thelwall. Anyone who has spent even the most modest time studying the writing of Wordsworth and Coleridge will be aware that their radical instincts drifted very quickly to the Right and the promise of The Lyrical Ballads was soon transmuted into a conservative support of the establishment.

Indeed, there are those commentators who think that this rightward drift happened even faster than has been traditionally thought – but this is very much something that Thompson seeks to challenge in his lectures. He contends that both poets have been misinterpreted and did in fact hang on to their radical politics for longer than has been assumed. But there is no denying that the Jacobin or radical cause wasn’t helped when by 1795 the Government implemented draconian laws clamping down on the free expression of revolutionary ideas. The fear of the contagion of sedition from France had led to the seeding of spies in any environment where radicalism was suspected and individuals like Wordsworth and Coleridge were singled out for special treatment.

To be honest although it’s excellent that this material has been pulled together and made available for us all to read, it’s also true that the results are patchy – the longer essays are very much better than the book reviews that are also included here. For me the real revelation is the material dealing with John Thelwall because I really didn’t know anything much about him. The chapter entitled Hunting The Jacobin Fox makes it clear that Thelwall was something of an acquired taste – dedicated to the radical cause but rather over-fond of public display and acclaim and always trying to stay one step ahead of the authorities who wanted desperately to shut him up:

..however much Thelwall was pursued like a fox, the pursuit stopped short of the kill….The intention was to drive him out of the reform business….In this they succeeded.

I also very much liked the opening and introductory lecture which sets out Thompson’s take on the revolutionary nature of the Romantic literary movement and its commitment to finding an egalitarian balance between the intellectual life of the middle classes and the intuitive, emotional intelligence embedded in the customs of the working class.

Thompson is one of my heroes. A radical, an historian, a political activist, peace campaigner, literary critic and someone who has fundamentally shaped my understanding of social class. I’m certain that if he’d lived long enough to produce the book on the Romantics he’d envisaged it would have been as influential and ground-breaking as The Making of the English Working Class. Sadly this isn’t that book but it’s still scattered with precious stones that make it glitter in parts and which should also make it a necessary part of anyone’s library.


Terry Potter

November 2017